Epic film depicts turmoil of 20th century China

BERLIN - An epic film recalling the turmoil and barbarity which swept China as it lurched from imperial to communist rule in the early 20th century was only possible because of greater artistic freedoms, its director said on Wednesday.

By (Reuters)

Published: Thu 16 Feb 2012, 1:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

Wang Quan’an, whose three-hour “White Deer Plain” has its world premiere at the Berlin film festival, told reporters it had been submitted to the Chinese censors and some changes had been necessary.

And while he was not entirely satisfied with the outcome, it was better than not having the film made at all.

“For 20 years it was impossible and maybe even a taboo to make this kind of film,” Wang told reporters after a press screening of the movie, based on a novel by Chen Zhongshi.

“So now we’re moving forward, and had a pretty good environment in which to make this film,” he added, speaking through an interpreter. “So it’s a step forward.”

That said, Wang, who won Berlin’s Golden Bear best picture award in 2007 with “Tuya’s Marriage”, still had to submit his film to the censors.

“There was some intervention on the part of censorship, let’s say ‘corrections’ were made,” he said, adding that some alterations were “painful” and “sad”.

Sex, brutality, complexity

The novel on which the film is based was deemed by many as “unfilmable” for a Chinese director because of explicit sex scenes, a complicated plot and less-than-flattering portrayals of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries and soldiers.

The movie adaptation depicts sex and rape though there is no nudity, the language is strong and no side in the historical events depicted emerges with much merit.

If there is a hero, it is the character of Bai Jiaxuan, head of an important family in the small village where the narrative is set who refuses to bow to the demands of marauders and bloodthirsty revolutionary zealots.

“He is steeped in the Chinese Confucian philosophy and tradition, and when the temple is to be destroyed he refuses to give the key,” said Zhang Fengyi, the actor who plays him.

White Deer Plains is named after the village and surrounding area which provides a stunning backdrop to the action.

The “breadbasket” of China, the area is a target for unscrupulous feudal lords, communist revolutionaries, soldiers, counter-revolutionaries and finally Japanese invaders.

Centuries-old traditions are swept away and villagers switch sides in order to survive, but executions, murder and rape become the norm.

As the two leading families in the village, the Bai and Lu clans are both inextricably tied and destined to clash.

The beautiful Tian Xiao’e visits the area and falls in love with Heiwa of the Bai family, triggering a tumultuous chain of escapes, betrayals and death for many at the story’s heart.

Wang said he hoped White Deer Plain would help outsiders understand the Chinese, and the Chinese understand themselves.

“We see what happened at the beginning of the 20th century, and may be that will help us understand how we are the kind of people we are.”

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